Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Plea for David

Replica of Michelangelo's David, in Piazzale Michelangelo
Over the past several days, I have perused a lot of tourism sites focusing on Florence.  Many of these sites suggested that tourists visiting Florence might want to skip visiting the Galleria dell'Accademia because ticket prices are 6.50 euro for adults to enter, which apparently seems a lot of money to these authors.  They claim that spending that much to see Michelangelo's masterpiece, David, is a waste, because Florence is covered in replicas of the statue.

I take issue with this claim.

First of all, David is not the only piece of sculpture in the entire gallery.  Granted, it is the largest and most well-known, but there are other pieces in the gallery to view.

Regardless of that fact, I would pay 6.50 euro to just view David.  The replicas are similar, and there are an abundance of them in Florence, but they do not compare to laying your eyes on this massive piece of art.  The white marble is brilliant.  The stare of David gives you goosebumps (at least it did for me).

When you enter the gallery, you'll see him there.  There he is.  Standing so tall at the end of the hallway as you walk in.  He is beautiful.

As you walk closer, you can see details, such as veins in his hands and feet.  His skin - so smooth and white.

Then you think to yourself:  this is a sculpture by Michelangelo.  THE MICHELANGELO!  Now you can understand why the man was and is considered one of the best (if not the best) artists of all time.  Looking at David, you're looking at a man.  You don't see that he was once just a large piece of marble. There really isn't any indication that he was chiseled from anything.  There are no marks on his body (except on his foot...thanks to some lunatic who attacked him with a hammer back in 1991).  His skin is as smooth as a baby's.

You could easily stand there and stare at him for an hour.  It's as if he is a magnet for your eyes.  You try to take it all in, but in a way it is almost overwhelming.

Some interesting facts about David:  Michelangelo was 26 years old when he got the job to sculpt David.  It took him a little over 2 years to finish.  Originally, he was to be placed on the roof of the Duomo, along with 11 other Old Testament figures.  However, due to the 6 ton weight of the sculpture, and the fact that the other planned sculptures never really happened (except for one by Donatello, that was eventually lost in the 18th century), the powers that be (of which included such illustrious folk as Leonardo Da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli) decided to bag the idea and ended up placing him at the entrance to the Palazzo della Signoria.  He was removed from that spot in 1873 and has been at L'Accademia ever since.

Unfortunately, there is no photography allowed in the gallery (which is why I only have one photo of a replica in this post).  As a matter of fact, when we visited last April, someone walking behind us with a camera was yelled at by a woman who worked there, "NO PHOTO!"  Boo.  I would have loved to snap 100 pictures of him.  (You can, however, purchase photos, posters, books, postcards, etc in the gift shop)

So please...if you visit Florence...take some time to stop in and say hello to David.  You won't regret it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Certosa del Galluzzo

La Certosa del Galluzzo is a large monastery located just outside of Florence, on a hillside overlooking the small town of Galluzzo.  It was built in 1341 by Niccolo Acciaioli, a Florentine nobleman, who had the idea of making it a religious center, as well as a place of education for youth.  For centuries, the monastery was run by Carthusian monks, but in 1957, a small group of Cistercian friars took over the complex.  These friars remain there today and support themselves by manufacturing herbal liquors, elixirs, perfumes and small handcrafted items that are available for purchase in their small shop. 

The monastery's shop, where you can purchase religious items as well as their tasty elixirs.

You can get to the monastery by car or bus (the number 37 from Santa Maria Novella Station will get you there).  It will take you about 15 minutes to get there by car (longer by bus) from Florence.  Once you get there, you will walk up the hill and a set of stairs to a small courtyard, which is where you will wait for your tour to start.  Tours last an hour and are given 5 times a day in the winter months (9am, 10am, 11am, 3pm & 4pm) and 6 times a day in the summer months  (9am, 10am, 11am, 3pm, 4pm & 5pm).  They do not have morning tours on Sundays or on religious holidays.  They don't take reservations either, so just show up before the tour is set to start.  The only place that you can freely roam is the entry courtyard.  The rest of the grounds are by guided tour only.  Be sure to bring a few euros to hand to the friar after the tour.  It's a free-will donation, but don't be a jerk and not pay.  It'd suggest at least 5 euro per person.

As you wait in the courtyard for the friar to arrive (they are very prompt), take a look around.  The architecture is beautiful and the landscape is breath-taking.  Snap some pictures.  Visit their gift shop.  Enjoy the tranquility of the space.

On the left is the gift shop.  On the right, a small chapel that was originally used for women (who were not permitted inside the monastery).

Once your tour guide arrives, he will lead you up the steps to the Palazzo Acciaioli.  Also known as Palazzo degli Studi (palace of studies), it was originally intended to be a retreat home for Niccolo Acciaioli, however, he died before the palace was completed.  You will walk into the pinacoteca, "picture gallery" of the palace, which is on the top floor of the building.  It's a large, open space which houses many paintings and frescoes, along with some sculpture.  The lower, older level of the palace is used as a workshop where they restore ancient books.

Steps leading to Palazzo Acciaioli
After taking in the artwork in the palazzo, you will exit into the large piazzale in front of the church.  From there, you will enter the church, dedicated to San Lorenzo.  The church is magnificent.  Rather plain on the outside, but on the inside it is filled with gorgeous artwork and marble.  The intricately carved wooden choir along the walls (constructed between 1570 and 1591) are absolutely beautiful and the exquisite marble altar (1773) is a work of art.

Upon exiting the church, you will find yourself in the colloquio.  The Carthusian monks were only permitted 1 hour of conversation each week, and the colloquio was where this interaction with each other would take place.

Beautiful stained glass windows in the colloquio
Next, you will step out into the Chiostrino del Colloquio.  This small cloister was refurbished in the mid 1500's.  

The Capitolo, "Chapter House", is your next stop on the tour.  This is where the monks would gather daily to hear a chapter of the monastic rule read.  A magnificent painting, La Crocefissione ("The Crucifixtion") by Mariotto Albertinelli hangs above the altar.  In the floor of the capitolo is the tomb of Leonardo Buonafe, a Carthusian bishop, who died in 1545.

The tomb of Leonardo Buonafe

Exiting the capitolo, you will arrive in the Chiostro dei Monaci, the "monastic cloister".  Surrounding this large, open space are 18 cells, mini apartments where the monks resided (and to this day, still reside).  

There are two rectangular areas that are fenced off within the open courtyard.  These are used as cemeteries - one on the left for the lay brothers, one on the right for the monks. There are no names on the graves, by the way.  From what the friar told us on our tour, that is in accordance with the Carthusian tradition.

Monastic graves

Your next stop will be to enter into one of the monastic cells.  The  Carthusian monks would live a life that was mostly hermit-like.  They remained in their cells to work, pray, eat, and sleep - only leaving to participate in liturgical ceremonies and community activities, such as communal meals and chapter readings.  

The cells are small and sparsely furnished.  There is a fireplace for heat, a desk for writing and eating, and a bedroom with a bed, chest of drawers and a small bedside table.  

A monk's bedroom.  The little peep-window was used to check in on the monk if he missed a liturgical celebration or other community event.

After visiting the cell, you will be led back across the cloister to the Reffetorio ("refectory").  This is where the monks would come together for communal meals during religious feast days.  The only things that are not original in this room today are the long tables.  Unfortunately, Napoleon Bonaparte decided that he wanted he took them.  Jerk.  But I digress.  Everything else in the room is original, including the pulpit (1495) in the far corner where a monk would read from the Bible during the mealtime.

One of the last stops on your tour will be the Chiostrino dei Fratelli Conversi - the Cloister of the Lay Brothers.  This is a small cloister that is surrounded by rooms where the lay brothers would live.

As you exit the cloistered part of the monastery, you will once again cross the piazzale in front of the church.  Take the opportunity to get another picture or two of the exterior of the church.  If you happen to be there in the late afternoon, the way the sun hits the building is just lovely.

The late afternoon sun kisses the church

I hope that you will consider visiting this wonderful monastery when you are in the Florence area.  The friar who was our tour guide was extremely kind and knowledgeable.  If you do visit, keep in mind that the friars do not speak English, so you might want to have someone there to translate for you.  If you don't have anyone who can do so for you, go anyway.  It's worth seeing, even if you don't understand a word he speaks.

Our monastic tour guide at the end of the tour

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Parco delle Cascine

When in Florence, we tend to spend a lot of time at this park.

Cascine is Florence's biggest park.  It stretches about 3.5 kilometers along the northern bank of the Arno River, just west of the city center.  It began in the mid 1500's, starting from a farm owned by the Medici family, and was fully opened up to the public in the 1800's.

The western part of the park begins at the Indiano Bridge, which crosses the Arno River at it's confluence with the Mugnone.  The bridge gets it's name from the Monumento all'Indiano, a monument located at the junction of the rivers, which was built in 1870 as a memorial to Rajaram Chuttraputti, a young Indian prince who fell ill and died in Florence in November of that year.  The prince's body was burned, in accordance with Hindu rites, at that spot and his ashes were scattered along the rivers.  This, of course, sparked a lot of curiosity with the Florentine people, who had never witnessed such an event, and ever since then, this spot is referred to as l'Indiano (the Indian).

Monumento all'Indiano
The park is filled with very tall, gorgeous trees of many varieties.  In the eastern part of the park there are mainly two species of tree: linden and oak, but in the western part of the park, the species are more diverse.  You can find elm, maple, pine, acacia, elder, oak, cedar, poplar, ginko, chestnut, and cedar trees, among many others.  There is a posted walking trail that points out 21 different species of trees in the western part of the park.

There are tons of paths to wander in the park, many covered by canopies of tall trees. 

Also in the western part of the park is an amphitheater.  Concerts and other events are held here, mostly in the summer months.

The park is very popular with local Florentines.  On any given day, you will see people riding bicycles, roller skating, and jogging.  Couples stroll arm in arm along the Arno.  Friends gather for games of calcio (soccer) and picnics.  Families bring their children to play in the park, and in the summer, to the swimming pool.  

Locals and their dogs, enjoying the park
There are two hippodromes in the park.  While we were walking one day, we caught a glimpse of some drivers practicing with their horses.

There are a few oddities at the park.  The strangest, in my opinion, is the pyramid.  It seems rather random, but  it's original purpose for being built was as an ice house.

Another thing you might find strange is a monument to George Washington.  Yep, that George Washington.  George isn't the only American President that is represented at the park.  Both Washington and Lincoln have paths named after them (Viale Giorgio Washington and Viale Abramo Lincoln, respectively), and in the middle of the park, you'll find the Piazzale Kennedy (which is where the bust of Washington can be found).

If you keep your ears open, you might hear an odd squawking sound coming from the tops of the tall trees.  Look up...and look closely.  What are they?  Green parrots!

Every Tuesday, between the hours of 7am and 2pm, there is a huge outdoor market along Viale Abramo Lincoln.  This is not a tourist market by any means.  Wandering among the booths, you won't find goofy souvenirs here, but you will find just about anything else you can imagine.  Shoes, leather goods, clothing, food, pets (I saw a few really cute bunnies there), antiques, books, name it, it's probably at the market.  This is where the locals go for bargains and you can join in the bargain hunting right along with them.

Also on the Viale Abramo Lincoln, close to the tram tracks at the eastern end of the park, is a small amusement park called Luna Park that has rides, games and booths that sell goodies, such as cotton candy.  It's more like a carnival atmosphere than formal amusement park.  You can walk through it for free, but the rides and games will cost you around a euro.  We didn't make it there when it was open, but we did walk through it during the day when it was closed.  It's open evenings during the week and on the weekends (at least in the summertime) it's open from around 10am to midnight (I'm not sure about winter hours).

You should definitely visit Cascine while you are in Florence.  It's an absolutely gorgeous park and it's completely free, so go and enjoy!  Bring a picnic, or visit one of the snack bars that serve up panini and other goodies.  Take your time wandering through the trees.  Sit by the Arno and watch the birds.  Take it all in.  The sounds, the sights, the smells.  You're in Florence.  Life is good.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Nutella Cupcakes for World Nutella Day

It's the 5th of February.  You know what that means?  It's World Nutella Day!

In case you have no clue what World Nutella Day is, it is a day devoted to eating and enjoying the delicious chocolate-hazelnut spread from Italy.  It was created in 2007 and has been getting bigger and better each year.  Thanks to the brilliant idea of Sara Rosso, an American living in Milan, Italy, we can lift our spoons in celebration.

Today, five years after it's inception, Nutella-loving bloggers from around the world create, bake, cook, and share recipes and ideas centered around this delicious spread.  This year, I'm throwing my blog into the ring as well.  I pondered as to what I should make to commemorate the day and then it hit me: cupcakes.

You see, not only is Feburary 5th World Nutella Day, it is also the birthday of one of my favorite kids in the whole entire world.  Oops.  Wait.  He's officially not a kid anymore.


Sam is my best friend's son, who was born 18 years ago today.  It's quite fitting that he shares his day with World Nutella Day, because he is as big of a Nutella fiend as I am.  Maybe a bigger fiend.  The boy...sorry...the man loves his Nutella!

So, in celebration of both World Nutella Day and Sam's birthday, I made Nutella Cupcakes!

The easiest way to start these cupcakes is to use a good chocolate cake mix.  (You can use your own favorite recipe, if you want.)  Add 2 tablespoons of Nutella to the mixture and beat it in well.  Then, pour into your cupcake liners and bake as directed.  Try not to eat all of the batter.  I know it's tough, but be strong.

When they're done baking, cool them completely on a cooling rack.

When they are no longer warm, cut a "cone" shape into the top of the cupcake, like this:

Place a little Nutella into the crater that you formed in the cake (approximately a teaspoon) and then place the top back on the cupcake.

Now it's time to make the frosting.  You'll need:

250 grams of confectioner's sugar (about 3 cups)
80 grams of softened butter (about 3/4 of a stick)
2 tablespoons of milk
100 grams of Nutella (about 1/2 cup)

(please note that the conversions from grams are just my guesstimate.)

Beat the sugar and the butter together until combined (use an electric's easier).  Add the Nutella and milk and beat until nice and smooth.

Frost the tops of the cupcakes with the frosting and enjoy!  (You can pop them in the refrigerator for about 30-60 minutes if you desire so that the Nutella firms up a bit, but that's completely up to you.)

Buon appitito!

* Be sure to check out Sara Rosso's blog: Ms. Adventures in Italy.  She posts some amazing recipes and photos about her adventures!

* Also check out the blog of her co-host of World Nutella Day, Michelle Fabio, an American living in Calabria, Italy.  Here's the link: Bleeding Espresso.  She has some great recipes too, as well as inspirational posts.

* For more information on World Nutella Day, check out the official site: Nutella Day

Friday, February 3, 2012


It's winter.  It's cold.  (Ok, so it hasn't been so cold this week...but it's still winter!)  What's one of the best ways to warm up?  SOUP!  If you like a healthy, hearty soup, then you should try to make some homemade minestrone.  This recipe is, of course (it is my blog, after all), Tuscan.  I'm going to teach you how to make all of this:
into a yummy soup!

First thing's first.  When you shop for your produce, make sure you get the freshest, nicest looking vegetables that you can find.  It pays to be picky!

You're going to need the following vegetables: onion, basil, potatoes, carrot, Italian kale (cavolo nero or lacinato kale), celery, lettuce, zucchini, string beans, and plum or roma tomatoes.  (Yep, that's a lot of vegetables.  It's going to turn into a lot of soup!)

You're also going to need extra virgin olive oil, pancetta, cannellini beans, beef broth, and short pasta (I use ditalini).

Now, I hope you have a good knife, because you're going to be doing a lot of chopping!

First, chop up half of an onion and about a 1/2 cup of fresh basil leaves.

You're also going to need 2 ounces of diced pancetta.  You can find pancetta at the deli counter at most big supermarkets.  I happened to find a package of already diced pancetta at my grocery store.

Then.. dice ALL the vegetables! Ok, well not really all of them yet.  You can wait to chop the tomatoes.  I like to wait until I am just about ready to add them to the soup, because if they sit, they can get kind of gross. Oh, and don't dice the string beans.  I just cut them into pieces about an inch or so long.

When you chop the Italian kale, remove the stems, then chop up the leaves.

Then, when you're done wielding your knife, it's time to start the soup.

Turn on your burner to medium and pour about 4 or 5 tablespoons of olive oil into the bottom of a big pot.  I never measure my oil, I just eyeball it.  One less thing to wash that way.

Then add your pancetta...

...and the onion and basil.

Now stand there and breathe in the magnificent perfume you created.

You're welcome.

Saute it around a bit and then add the rest of the chopped vegetables (except for the tomatoes).  As a recap, you'll be adding: about a 1/2 pound of diced potatoes, 1 diced carrot, about a 1/2 pound or so of Italian kale, 1 diced celery stalk, 1 chopped head of lettuce, 2 or 3 small, chopped zucchini, and about 1/4 pound of string beans.

Toss in a little salt and pepper and cover.  Let it cook for about 10 minutes.  While you're waiting, go ahead and drain and rinse your can of cannellini beans and peel and chop 2 or 3 plum or roma tomatoes.  After 10 minutes, remove the lid from the pot.  It should look something like this:

Give it a stir and then add your beans and chopped tomatoes.

Next, add enough broth to cover everything.  I have no idea how much this will take for you.  I don't buy my broth, I make it myself.  If I had to guesstimate, I would suggest buying a couple of the big cartons/cans of broth.  If you don't use it all, you can use it for something else, like pasta al brodo.

Cover it up again and let it cook slowly for 2 hours.  You might need to turn the heat down to medium-low.  You will want it to just simmer slowly.  Be sure to give it a stir every so often so that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot.  You may need to add more broth (or water) to the soup, just keep an eye on it.

After 2 hours, add about a 1/2 pound of the short pasta.  Stir it in and let it cook for 10 minutes.  When the pasta is done, the soup is ready to eat!

Dish it up and drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil on top of each serving.

Buon appetito! 

(for those who want to print the recipe, here's a written version:)


4 or 5 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 oz. diced pancetta
1/2 of a medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup chopped basil
1/2 pound yellow potatoes, peeled and diced
1 diced carrot
1/2 pound Italian kale (cavolo nero or lacinato kale), chopped
1 diced celery stalk
1 head of lettuce, chopped
2 or 3 small diced zucchini
1/4 pound string beans
2 or 3 ripe plum or roma tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 can of cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
beef broth
1/2 pound short pasta (I use ditalini)

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large pot.  Saute the pancetta, onion and basil.  Add all vegetables except tomatoes.  Salt and pepper to taste, cover and let cook for 10 minutes.  Add the tomatoes and beans, and enough broth to cover everything.  Cook slowly for 2 hours, covered, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.  Add more broth or water as needed.
After 2 hours, add the pasta and cook for 10 minutes.  When pasta is done, the soup is ready to eat.  Serve hot, drizzled with a little extra-virgin olive oil.